Well I've been eyeballing smoking some fish and for New Years Eve I bought a couple farm raised salmon fillets a local grocer had on sale for $6.99lb. After seeing so many people invest in quality poundage of salmon and stress their first attempt at smoking, I thought I should make my first attempt small, that way I don't run the risk of ruining a lot of money's worth of salmon.
I cut the fat ends off of the fillets and prepared them using a blackened recipe for New Years Eve and they were fantastic. I am not a big fish guy, but when I do eat fish my preference is raw sushi, battered and deep fried, smoked and otherwise prepared with very strong flavors like blackening. The remaining fillet pieces left me with about 1.25lbs of skin on salmon to play with. The MES30 I have makes it really easy to do a small smoke, I keep it in the garage and can plop it out right beside the back door on the deck in a minute.
After reading around here and elsewhere on the web, I was really looking for quick and easy. I know that doesn't jive with smoking culture but it's my party and I'll do what I want! The long brine methods all over here were more than I cared to get in to this weekend, so I found a great, easy fast brining recipe on another web site that I decided to use. I wont share that link until someone tells me linking to another smoking site is OK with the powers that be here. I'm a member here but I look all over, including the public library for cooking and smoking information.
The base recipe is:
2lbs salmon, skin on for a really cool aspect of this method.
1/2 cup hot water
1/4 cup white sugar
2 tablespoons fine ground black pepper
2 tablespoons garlic powder (I have granulated, it doesn't cake like powder)
1/2 gal cold water.
The basis of the recipe is to brine the fish no longer than 3 hours, go right in the smoker at 225 for about an hour and no more than 150° internal temp. The author likes to pile a brown sugar glaze on the flesh side before going in the smoker. I don't want salmon candy, I don't have a big sweet tooth and I prefer salty and spicy foods; so I took a suggestion the author had in the recipe and used some of my pastrami rub stash as a coating before going in to the smoker.
I added to and deviated from his recipe, as I am wont to do often. I'll indicate those variances as I go along.
To start, I needed to calculate the exact measurements for my 1.25lbs, and that worked out to:
1.25lbs salmon, skin on for a really cool aspect of this method.
2.5 oz hot water (liquid measurement)
2.5 oz salt by weight (I used Kosher salt and it measured a shy 1/3 cup)
1/4 teaspoon Prague powder/Cure #1 (for the heck of it)
2.5 tablespoons white sugar
1.25 tablespoons fine ground black pepper
1.25 tablespoons garlic powder (I have granulated, it doesn't cake like powder)
40 oz cold water. (liquid measurement)
1/3 cup cheap vodka (I'll explain below)
Pastrami rub to taste
So first off, I love my digital scale. I used a spring scale for years and moved up to this great scale I use all the time. Its range is .10oz to 75lbs and I checked at least the low end with some scale calibrating weights I have for a smaller mini digital scale, and it checked out perfect up to 300 grams (10.582 oz) out of the box. I use this scale for all kinds of stuff.
Since this was a fast brine I scored the skin side to allow the fish to soak up brine from all around. You'll see below why I didn't skin them first. You need a really sharp knife for this and mine wasn't as sharp as I thought. I was a little worried about the deep cuts but that turned out to be no problem at all.
As I read around the Internet and here, I ran across a recipe that said, if your fish smells a little "fishy" soak it in some cheap vodka first for a little while. Well this salmon didn't smell bad, but I thought, "what the heck, I always have cheap vodka on hand". I thought I had grabbed my 1/4 cup measure but turns out it was the 1/3 cup measure (dry measure cup is what I used). 1/4 or 1/3 would be fine either way.
I put the salmon in a plastic bag with the vodka and let it sit while I was measuring and preparing the rest of the recipe...about 30-45 minutes because I got distracted with stuff. (I don't waste money on ziplock unless I'm worried about a puncture, I use cheap1 gal twist tie bags for all kinds of stuff including marinating and breading)
You will see that the vodka reacts to the fat in the fish and gets milky looking. I worried a little that it might strip too much fat out of the fish, but it was not a problem at all. I think it added to the complexity of the end flavor.
So the brine recipe has you start with a bit of hot water as listed, dissolving the salt, sugar and spices in to a slurry, then adding it to the rest of the cold water.
I pulled the fillets out of the vodka and discarded the vodka and bag because it was apparent that the fillets would fit in the big measuring bowl I mixed the brine in. I didn't rinse the fillets, opting to let that vodka flavor carry through. I could still smell a hint of the vodka after brining...and it was good...
This requires a stir every now and then to keep the spices distributed (Squishing the bag if bag brined)
I let the thinner pieces brine for about 1.5+ hours and the thicker pieces (maybe 1/2 to 3/4" thick) brine for 2.5 hours+. Although the warnings from the author about brining too long were taken under advisement, it wouldn't have hurt to brine a bit longer...but, the fillets didn't "need" to, as they were full of flavor in the end.
The author of the base recipe I used said he had done both straight in to the smoker after brining as well as dried to form pellicle and said he found no difference in flavor at all, but that resting would allow the brine to distribute so it wouldn't hurt.
Well, this is another spot I deviated from the recipe because I wanted to see that pellicle for myself. So I rinsed the fillets a little, patted them dry and put them on a rack. Then out to my garage fridge for about 3 hours or so. I read in several places a fan is good for this and a light bulb went on in my head. I had this little fan that was perfect, ran the cord through the gap at the hinge side of the fridge door and the door closed and sealed fine.
And here is the air dried fillet with the pellicle. I used flash on this because you could see the sheen of the pellicle better even though the picture actually looks darker oddly enough.
So here is where I brain lapsed. I forgot to take a pic of the pastrami rub and the placing on brown paper. That's right, one of the coolest things about this author's recipe is the paper, so I wanted to try it. He said to use paper bag or plain white paper and lay the skin side down on it for smoking because the skin comes right off easily when done. I had some contractors heavy paper and used that, cutting individual pieces for each fillet.
So, a good coating of pastrami rub on the flesh side, on to the paper skin side down and in to the smoker. I also didn't take any pics of the fillets in the smoker, I got distracted again, plus it was dark outside by this time.
This is another spot where I deviated from the authors recipe. Instead of right in at 225°, I chose the slow rise method I saw in several places. I started with the fillets in a cold smoker and set it at 100° with chips immediately loaded, then raised the temp by 10-15° every 10 minutes or so staying ahead of the element turning off to keep the smoke rolling. Finally finished at 200° in about 2 hours but did take the salmon a little over to about 155°. I was erring on the side of caution for my first run at this. It was not a problem, the salmon is fantastic with plenty of oily richness and a flavor profile I have never smelled or tasted before...in a good way.
So out of the smoker to rest and cool a bit
My phone camera for some reason makes things look lighter with no flash and darker with flash. These came out darker than they look above.
OK, here is the cool part. I was worried that my cuts through the skin would weaken the structure of the fish and they would fall apart but there was no problem. I liked the idea of leaving the skin on for flavor but also these were the thin ends of the fillets, so I was worried skinning them would also make them fall apart trying to get them off the smoker rack.
The paper trick worked nearly flawlessly. A little assistance from a spatula and the fillets came clean off the skin in one piece and the skin stayed tight to the paper for disposal. I like this.
The paper also made for a clean smoker grate because no juices or fats left the paper, and that contractors paper I used is heavy, so it didn't soak through either. The broken piece of salmon was on purpose as a texture test...and of course a taste!
And in to the food saver with one piece left out to nosh on.
Aren't they purdy?
We were having leftover Chili last night, not this salmon, but we did sample it and it is really good. Never tasted anything like it as I said above. This was easy.
I made this with cold eating in mind. Smoked salmon seems to taste better cold to me, so these should only be better with time and chill and of course some fresh squeezed lemon...maybe on a bagel with cream cheese...and some onion...OK, I'm hungry now.
I will credit the author of the base recipe I used and link to the page if folks tell me that wont step on anyone's "stuffing" here.
Where I deviated from the base recipe:
1-Cut hatched lines through the skin
2-vodka soak prior to brine
3-Use pastrami rub (this was actually a note in the recipe but the author doesn't do it and everyone else trying this seemed to be using brown sugar like him)
4-Air dried even though the author didn't feel it makes a difference
5-Slow rise on the box temps rather than 225° out of the chute for a fast smoke...I slowed it down to be sure enough smoke got on them.
Cheers and smoke on...smokers